WASHINGTON — While President Donald Trump’s beliefs about global warming remain something of a mystery, his actions make one thing clear: He doesn’t consider it a problem for the federal government to solve.
Trump’s recent decision to pull out of the Paris climate deal was just his latest rapid-fire move to weaken or dismantle federal initiatives to reduce carbon emissions, which scientists say are heating the planet to levels that could have disastrous consequences.
Trump is waging war against efforts to curb U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. He’s done that through executive orders targeting climate change programs and regulations, massive proposed spending cuts and key appointments such as Scott Pruitt as chief of the Environmental Protection Agency.
To what degree Trump will succeed remains to be seen. Despite the fanfare of his Paris announcement, including a pledge that his administration will halt all work on it, formally removing the U.S. from the accord could take more than three years. Rescinding the Clean Power Plan, President Barack Obama’s signature measure to curb emissions from coal-fired power plants, likely would require three years. Trump’s budget, which would slash funding for climate research and assistance to cities preparing for weather-related calamities, needs approval from Congress, where resistance is strong.
Still, the sharp change in course is being felt in ways large and small, down to the scrubbing of climate change information from federal agency websites. Environmentalists are predictably outraged. Even some Republicans are taken aback.
“This is a repudiation of 45 years of steady improvement in the enforcement and rigor of laws to protect the environment in the U.S.,” said William K. Reilly, who led the EPA under President George H.W. Bush and is chairman emeritus of the World Wildlife Fund.
Trump’s administration reversed Obama’s moratorium on leasing federal lands for coal mining, joined with Congress to kill protections of streams from coal mining waste, stopped tracking the federal government’s carbon emissions and withdrew a requirement for more emissions data from oil and gas facilities. A rollback of automobile fuel-economy standards is under consideration. His proposed 2018 budget would cut climate and energy research spending in numerous agencies, including a two-thirds reduction at EPA.
Trump is hardly the first president accused of favoring businesses over the environment. His belief in easing the regulatory burden on them is firmly in the Republican mainstream.
What sets him apart is his zealousness and public dismissiveness of the scientific evidence showing the Earth is warming and man-made carbon emissions are largely to blame.
“This is more extreme than any previous Republican president – this is their old set of sentiments on steroids,” said David Doniger, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “There’s no orderly, reasonable inquiry into whether something makes sense and should be left in place.”
At one point, Trump labeled global warming a “hoax” concocted by the Chinese to gain an economic edge over the U.S. Aides recently have sidestepped questions about whether he accepts the widely held scientific view about climate change.
A White House statement issued this past week in response to questions from The Associated Press did not specify whether Trump believes the planet has been steadily warming, or say to what extent human activity such as burning of fossil fuels is responsible.
“The president believes that the climate is always changing – sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Pollutants are part of that equation,” the statement said.
“The Trump administration is laser focused on clean water and clean air but also on better jobs for more and more Americans …,” it added. “America cannot stand by and have the rest of the world take our wealth and tax dollars to clean up their own environment while American businesses and American families suffer the consequences in the form of lost jobs and a diminished quality of life.”
Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who led the administration’s EPA transition team, said Trump and key advisers don’t necessarily reject climate science but don’t believe the threat “should be placed in the list of the top 50 things we should be worried about.”
Frustrated climate researchers say the opposite is true. They point to record-setting high temperatures, melting glaciers, rising sea levels and increasingly violent storms – trends that models suggest will only worsen.
But attacks on such findings from climate change doubters have taken their toll. Public trust in mainstream science and other institutions has eroded, and lines between fact and ideology have blurred, said David Victor, a Brookings Institution specialist on energy security and climate.
Trump could encounter trouble if his retreat from the climate fight doesn’t restore lost jobs in coal mining and energy production, Victor said.
The president has made reversing the decades-long decline in coal mining the central tenet of his environmental policy, blaming federal regulations for job losses. Federal statistics show coal mining accounted for only 51,000 jobs nationally at the end of May, up just 400 jobs from the prior month.
Many economists say technology and cheap natural gas are the biggest causes of the coal industry’s slump. But Trump’s focus on regulations remains popular in coal country.
“We support the direction the administration is going,” said Betsy Monseau, CEO of the American Coal Council. “It’s very important to us over the longer term to preserve a path for coal and coal utilization in this country.”